Of all the mediums and psychics and healers that American television has given us, none approximates the quartet of creeps in the new Greek movie “Alps.” First of all, they’re in no way gifted. Second, I’m reasonably certain they don’t know what they’re doing. I’m not sure the people who’ve agreed to let them impersonate their dead relatives in this lightless comedy know what they’re doing, either. Grief therapy should probably be left to professionals, but maybe what these four provide — someone to hold, someone to make love to in the basement of a lamp store — is cost efficient in a time of economic austerity. They’re getting what they pay for.
Still, done the “Alps” way we get an hour and a half of darkening absurdism. A nurse (Aggeliki Papoulia), a paramedic (Aris Servetalis), a gymnast (Ariane Labed), and her coach (Johnny Vekris) loan themselves out as the founding members of the Alps, which according to the paramedic — a handsome young weirdo with a mustache — is a multipurpose name. It’s symbolic and imposing. It signifies the irreplaceable and is kind of vague. It seems like an acronym but doesn’t quite stand for anything. Yet the movie isn’t empty. The rhythm of its strangeness gets under your skin more than it gets on your nerves. You spend more than half of this film waiting for the line separating rationality from sanity to stop moving, and it never really does. That’s an achievement.
The writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos is a grim comedian. He understands the potential pleasure of drollery and metes it out with steady assurance. The nurse sits in the hospital with two parents who’ve just lost their child, a top — or toppish — tennis player. “Your daughter lost the most important match of her life,” they’re told. “She had a tough opponent.” The comedy in a moment like that comes from the friction between the seriousness of the circumstances with the clinical sincerity of Papoulia’s delivery.
This is Lanthimos’s fourth movie, and the second in a row, after 2010’s “Dogtooth,” to apply to the cinema the improvisational concerns of experimental theater and dance theater. He hails from the laboratories of those worlds, and the recent results are a pair of films that achieve the impossible: creative looseness born of artistic constipation. With some directors, the eccentricity starts to turn arch, the way it did with the American Hal Hartley in the middle of his career. If you’re feeling rushed for time, Lanthimos, for now, is a comedian. But, really, he’s becoming something less precedented: a specialist in the freedoms of rigidity. His characters, unlike many of Hartley’s, seem emotionally ill as opposed to caricaturing that illness.
“Dogtooth” whittled down the dynamics of the dysfunctional family until what remained was anti-psychological emotional terrorism. “Alps,” which was written with Efthimis Filippou, turns cruel in a different but similar way. The experiment doesn’t add up psychologically, particularly as the movie narrows its focus to observe the nurse, whose reality is more broken than her groupmates’. She lives with her widowed father (Stavros Psillakis) and might be trying to take her sideways social work too far.
Both of Lanthimos’s movies are thinking about the inadequacies of these rule-bound systems, in which the players don’t know the rules of the game because the rules keep changing. Most of “Dogtooth” — which, astonishingly, was a foreign-language Oscar nominee a few years ago — remained situated on the family property. This time Lanthimos wants to see what happens when that experimental weirdness spills into Athens. With “Dogtooth,” the point was: Don’t try this at home. Now, the expanded lesson is: Don’t try this anywhere.Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.